Ezra (active 5th century B.C.) was a Hebrew priest, scribe, religious leader, and reformer who vitally influenced Judaism.
The son of Seraiah, Ezra was a descendant of the ancient priestly house of Zadok. In 458 B.C., the seventh year of the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra obtained the King's permission to visit Judea, bearing with him the latter's gifts for the Holy Temple. The primary purpose of his mission, however, was to inquire into the deteriorating religious conditions of the Jewish community in Judea.
Ezra came at the head of a caravan of about 1,800 men, not including their women and children. They made the 4 month journey from Babylon without the benefit of military escort, thereby demonstrating their trust and reliance upon God.
Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra proceeded to reorganize the Temple services. In response to his vigorous program to persuade the people to observe the Mosaic Law, they entered into a covenant to keep the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year, as well as other precepts of the Torah. But the problem that perplexed Ezra most was that many of the Judean settlers had taken heathen wives from among the neighboring peoples. Mixed marriages had become so prevalent as to threaten the very survival of the Jewish community. Ezra induced his people to divorce their pagan wives and to separate from the community those who refused to do so.
Ezra's action was an extreme measure, but he felt that the critical situation warranted it. It aroused the ire of the Samaritans and other peoples, who resented the affront to their women. In retaliation the Samaritans denounced Ezra to the Persian king for attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which he evidently was not authorized to do. The King stopped the work, and the rebuilt part was razed.
Ezra convened an assembly of the people in Jerusalem (ca. 445) in order to bring about a religious revival. Standing on a wooden pulpit, he read aloud a portion of the Law of Moses, which the Levites expounded. At that time, too, Ezra reinstituted the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. It is probable that he died shortly after this episode. The traditional tomb of Ezra is located in Basra, Iraq, though Josephus stated that he was buried in Jerusalem.
The Talmud ascribes a far more important role to Ezra than that recorded in the scriptural book bearing his name. The Talmud asserts that Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given through him to Israel had not Moses preceded him. It also attributes to him many ancient laws, perhaps to give them prestige and authority. It states that he introduced the use of the square Hebrew script. Ezra also is said to have determined the precise text of the Pentateuch. Tradition regards him, moreover, as the founder of the Kenesset Hagdolah, the Great Assembly, which exercised supreme religious authority until the end of the 4th century B.C.
Scholars believe it was Ezra who replaced the altars and shrines in the villages with synagogues. Other prominent Jewish religious customs are associated with Ezra, who is generally credited with having removed the Torah from the monopoly of the priesthood and democratized it by teaching it to the people. Finally, Ezra is regarded as the savior of the national and religious life of Judaism at a most critical period.
Further Reading on Ezra
R. Travers Herford discusses the period of Ezra in The Pharisees (1924). For background see John Bright, A History of Israel (1959), and G. A. Buttrick and others, eds., Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2 (1962).